The road to Kagaa from Githunguri town in Kiambu County is predominately marram. However, the numerous farms that border it provide for a scenic view.
Bibiana Kuria’s farm is one of them. Unlike the other farmers who have focused on tea farming, the 57-year-old grows Jack bean (Canavalia ensiformis), a climbing variety that is high yielding and only needs a small area to grow.
Land is shrinking in the county due to a real estate boom and this is choking the over 75 per cent small holder farmers’ ability to feed the population with beans.
Bibiana’s farming venture begun in 2007 after the death of her husband.
She started attending field work in Githunguri, Thika, Limuru and Kijabe to learn new farming techniques.
“At the field work I saw some farmers doing so well and got encouraged. I started off growing spinach, English potatoes and kales,” says Bibiana.
A week’s training at Mazingira Institute on food security changed the course of her life completely. “In 2008, a friend from United States introduced me to jack bean farming. She was selling a seed at Sh30 and I bought four seeds and he taught me how to plant it,” she adds.
From her three quarter of an acre, Bibiana is able to produce up to 80kgs of the beans during peak season. “Just like the classical jack and the beanstalk story, the money keeps on growing. My three sons have reached secondary level and are all employed. I have a degree in food science and technology from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT),”says Bibiana.
The shrinking market for the beans has Bibiana worried, yet the jack bean has high nutritional value and acts as animal fodder that could increase food security to smallholder farmers.
To regain this market, Bibiana tours field exhibition and farmer trade fairs in major counties to teach farmers on how to make money from the bean.
“I attend monthly farmer trade fairs organised by Kenya Livestock Producers Association (KLPA) in conjunction with various county governments to train farmers on jack bean farming. I make Sh10,000 from the sales on a good day depending on the county I am exhibiting at,” she says.
She sells a kilogramme of jack bean at Sh2000 but she prefers selling in packages at the exhibition, with a package of 10 seeds going for Sh100. This way, she is able to make more money from the harvest.
“I also sell from house to house around Kagaa, Iria-ini and Githunguri when I am not attending the monthly exhibitions,” she says. Most smallholder bean farmers in Kenya only have access to older, lower yielding varieties that are highly susceptible to diseases.
Bibiana notes that maintaining healthy seeds is essential to unlocking agriculture potential for smallholder farmers. “I train farmer groups in different counties during exhibitions on how to produce clean seeds that enhance high crop production,” she explains.
Land preparation for jack bean should be done during dry season to reduce weeds and to ensure the soil is fine. Maximum disease suppression in the soil forms the key to a healthy and vigorous bean plant, says Bibiana.
Planting at a distance of one metre between the plants is vital, so that when it shoots one is able to place the sticks for support. “Planting should be done at the onset of the rains. Once the plant has grown it can never be affected by lack of water; it will remain green,” she notes.
After it develops around three to four suckers, farmers are advised to support the bean with a stick that has many branches or a fence with wire mesh to aid in climbing.
“Support must be provided within 1-2 weeks after emergence. If left unsupported, they will crawl on the ground leading to low yield,” she says.